A Tale of Three Translations

I was watching the news yesterday, and there was a story about the stone in the image above, which features the lyrics of the song “Galway Bay” in English, Latin, Irish, and French. It was erected, appropriately enough, in my hometown of Galway last year, overlooking Galway Bay, as part of a poetry trail featuring similar plaques with translations of works by different Irish writers. Funnily, I wasn’t really aware of the content of the plaque until yesterday, even though for most of last year I lived very close to it, and in fact passed it practically every day. I had seen it alright, but in my defence, I was usually cycling, driving, or running, so never really stopped to look at it, and there are many little cultural markers like that around the city, so you do kind of get used to them.


The offending plaque, as it is now, in storage

Anyway, the issue with the plaque was with the Irish-language translation. A few months after it was erected, An Coimisinéir Teanga (the Language Commissioner) received a complaint about the quality of the Irish translation, which suggested that it didn’t capture the spirit of the original English-language lyrics. In a report, An Coimisinéir stated that there were approximately 40 errors in the 20 lines of the Irish version. I found this quite shocking, so had a look at the lyrics myself.

Now, my Irish isn’t so bad, but it’s Irish I’ve effectively learned as a second language, so I’m not quite qualified to say whether a translation can capture the sense of a song or not, but I can see some of the issues. There are a few basic errors. I initially thought that stroinséirí was wrong, as I grew up spelling it stráinséirí, but it seems that the former is a common alternative spelling. And funnily enough, in the English version, its counterpart is misspelled stragers! If you compare the picture below, from its unveiling, with the image above (taken while it’s in storage), you can see that since it was removed someone’s been making a stab (literally) at correcting it. Chun (to), for example, has been corrected to Chuan (bay). Overall though, forgetting any spelling or grammatical errors, the translation indeed doesn’t really seem to capture the spirit of the song. It’s fairly literal, but probably could’ve done with deviating from the original English a little. The French translation seems more effective, sticking pretty much to the content of the original, but with a few little changes, like specifically mentioning Les Anglais in the fourth verse, which is quite different from the original English verse in content, but has the same tone (I can’t speak for the quality of the Latin translation).


It’s a strange little story, but it’s perhaps not so strange that it would happen here in Ireland. When it comes to language, things have long been complicated. Stepping back and looking at things objectively, it might seems strange that so many errors were made in the first official language of the country (Irish), whereas the version in the second official language of the country (English) featured only one typo (which is still pretty bad mind you: when you’re carving, you’d better be careful with your spelling). But no-one in Ireland would be surprised at this, or that not many people seemed to notice any problems with the translation. The Irish language’s position as first official language is more of a cultural position than anything else, as 99% of the population speak English as their native tongue. Officially, 36% of people can speak Irish, but I’m quite confident that most of those people who claimed they could speak Irish in the most recent census equated I can remember a few words from school with I can speak Irish. It’s estimated that about 1.7% of the population (77,185) speak Irish on a daily basis. And even though that’s lower than the number of people in Ireland who speak Polish (119,526), it sounds about right. You see, even though we learn Irish from the beginning of primary school to the end of secondary school, we share the same problems other English-speaking countries have with teaching and learning a second language. Plus, it’s seen as uncool to most young people, though less so than in the past.

In the past most people spoke Irish, but English began to take over from the middle of the 19th century, partly due to the British administration’s policies to establish education through English (so we couldn’t talk about them without them understanding), and partly because of the influence of the Catholic Church, who decided that the many emigrants in the post-famine years would need English in Britain and America.

I like the Irish language, and I’m glad I can use it quite competently, but while I don’t want to see it lose its status, I also accept that English is the native tongue of most people in the country. Which is why we can have such difficultly translating from one of our official languages into the other. And of course it’s no surprise that the original was written in English (by an Irishman born in Ireland when it was part of the United Kingdom, in a region that is still part of the United Kingdom today; who served in the British Army, and died in England after Ireland became an independent republic), as most of our greatest writers have written in English. Mainly because it was their native tongue, though perhaps the reason for their success was the enrichment of their English by the use of Irish structures and words.

Regardless of all this linguistic and political complexity, there’s a more universal question involved here: how do you translate a song? Translation of any kind is always difficult, but with a song there are so many other factors to consider which make it much more difficult. How do you translate a poetic turn of phrase that might have been created by the lyricist solely for the song? How do you convey subtextual tone? How do you translate things accurately, and maintain the rhyme and rhythm of the song? Translating the idiosyncrasies of one language into another is hard enough, without having to also try to translate the specific artistic intentions of a writer. Which is why I always hesitate slightly about reading a translated novel (though I’m doing so at the moment), because I always feel that I’m not going to experience exactly what the author wrote.  So I can imagine how hard it must be to translate a song effectively. You need not only to have an excellent grasp of the subtleties of both languages, but also the artistic ability to create a song worthy of the original. I certainly couldn’t do it well in either Irish or French.

These guys seem to do a pretty good job though (knowing not to translate Hello to Dia dhuit to maintain the rhythm, for example) so maybe if they reinstall the plaque (no plans at present), they can get them to do the translation:

21 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Translations

    • I hope not, but at least even though not many speak it regularly, they’re dedicated to it and pass it on. Plus its official status means that all signs and official documents are produced in both languages.


  1. It’s good that you learn some Irish all the way through primary school. Gaelic Scottish is dying out, although the government spent lots of money making English/Gaelic signposts. Sadly, people just ignore the Gaelic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a pity. I suppose it’s partly because not everyone in Scotland associates themselves with it. I feel like here as well the money could be spent more effectively though, like looking into different teaching techniques. I’d love to know what they’re doing in Wales, because people there seem to have a much more positive relationship with Welsh.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s